The Zar Masters band - courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
CAIRO – 16 November 2017: Folk music in Egypt has roots stretching all the way back to the ancient past, even before the time of the Pharaohs.
Egyptians, of course, have always loved music. It was a sign of civilization, a gift from the Gods. Paintings of music players adorn the walls of ancient tombs; amongst the earliest instruments found is the Simsimiyya, a five-stringed lyre thought to be the instrument of lovers.
Much like most folk traditions of the ancient world, Ancient Egyptians likely passed on their music and techniques down orally, which means it has since been lost to the sands of time. Other instruments included drums, rattles, bells, cymbals, and trumpets, amongst others. Egypt’s immensely long history has ensured that an endless list of cultures, from neighboring tribes to the Greeks, contributed their part in shaping and influencing its sound.
The modern Egyptian folk tradition originated in the turn of the 20th century, when musicians became interested in preserving the music of the people around them. In particular, rural Egyptians or the ‘Fellahin’ and Nubian; Ethiopian and Bedouin tribes shared in their folk music.
An interesting example of Egypt’s many folk music traditions is the mysterious ‘Zar’. Both mystic and musical, Zar is believed to have originated from the ancient Ethiopian tribes, who passed on the tradition to the Egyptians. Considered to be Egypt’s oldest folk tradition, there is much disagreement as to its origins, with some scholars suggesting it emerged with the influx of Sudanese immigrants, and so the truth is shrouded in mystery.
The purposes of Zar go beyond the creation of pleasing sounds; it is a form of exorcism, believed to cast away evil spirits. Egyptian Zar in particular involves the usage of female singers in the forefront, with men playing drums.
Unfortunately, Zar has been struggling in more modern times. Religious backlash and fears that the music might be ‘black magic’ have always plagued Zar’s reputation, and lack of public demand threatens that the tradition could fade away. Thankfully, there are still those who hold on to preserving much of Egypt’s folk traditions.
Last week, the Wanas Festival concluded its third edition, which ran from November 9 until November 11. The festival brought together numerous local bands in one place, with an aim to help bring back these precious traditions and introduce them to a new generation of Egyptians. Educating and encouraging an interest in the beauty of Egypt’s rich musical heritage is the festival's reason to be.
Ancient Egyptian art depicting musicians, courtesy of Wikimedia
The festival was the effort of the El-Mastaba Center for Egyptian Folklore Music, which started its first edition back in 2014. As Abdel Hamid Awwas states in the center’s official site, folk music is the glue that holds communities together and its importance cannot be understated. Founded all the way back in 2000 by Zakaria Ibrahim, the El-Mastaba Center aims to help struggling folk musicians who cannot compete with modern bands. The antidote to this dilemma is to help revive folk traditions by reminding people of its unique value and priceless history.
Still, the issue goes even deeper, trying into the heart of classists' attitudes among richer Egyptians who view folk performers as poor and uneducated. The tourist industry, only just recovering, does little to help encourage folk traditions further and in some cases the artists are devalued as just another product to consume.
The heart of Egypt’s folk music is that it is by the people, about the people, and for the people. To forget this is to forget what it is that truly defines a culture; those who live in it.